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Monday, December 30, 2019

The Extraordinary Career and Legacy of Dino De Laurentiis

Producer Dino De Laurentiis was one of the most prolific filmmakers ever, having produced or co-produced more than 600 films during a career that spanned seven decades. His legacy continues not only through the work of his children and grandchildren but also by a new generation of filmmakers in his Italian hometown.

De Laurentiis was born in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius on Aug. 8, 1919, in the city of Torre Annunziata, located just minutes from the ruins of Pompeii. As a child, he worked at a local pasta factory owned and operated by his father. That experience had a profound effect on him, shaping a lifelong passion for food and an appreciation for business.

At the age of 17, he decided to leave home for the big city. He arrived in Rome and enrolled in the prestigious film school, Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. After attending the school for about a year, he managed to produce one film in 1940, The Last Combat, before having to leave Rome temporarily for military duty during the years leading up to World War II. 

Vittorio Gassman and Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice
He found his way back to Rome in 1944, starting his own production company in 1947 and releasing the first of many blockbusters two years later with the neorealist classic, Riso amaro (Bitter Rice). The film follows seasonal workers in the rice fields of northern Italy during the post-war economic depression. It stars Silvana Mangano and Vittorio Gassman, two stunning young actors at the beginning of their legendary careers. De Laurentiis not only had a hit movie on his hands, he found a life partner in Mangano. The couple wed that year and went on to have four children: Veronica, Raffaella, Francesca and Federico.

De Laurentiis teamed up the following year with another prolific producer, Carlo Ponti. Their collaboration lasted seven years. Among the many successful films they produced were The Unfaithfuls by Mario Monicelli (1953); Where Is Freedom? by Roberto Rossellini (1954); La Strada by Federico Fellini (1954); The Gold of Naples by Vittorio De Sica (1954); Ulysses by Mario Camerini, starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn along with Mangano (1954); and the 1956 Italy/America production of War and Peace, directed by King Wallis Vidor and starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda.

After parting ways with Ponti, De Laurentiis established his own film studios on the outskirts of Rome in an area known as the Castelli Romani. He named it Dinocittà, to mimic Rome’s Cinecittà. The idea came after the worldwide success of the 1957 Ben Hur which was filmed at the iconic Rome studio. The production ignited an international desire to shoot in Rome, so De Laurentiis, being the business man that he was, capitalized on this new demand and built the enormous production facility. The studio was quite popular during the 1960s and early 70s and attracted big names in Italy and the United States. On any given day, there would be the likes of Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni, John Huston, Charlton Heston, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda. 

It was a time of experimentation with a bit of fun thrown in. Italian directors worked with American actors and vice versa. B-grade westerns and war pictures were made, like Sergio Corbucci’s Navajo Joe (1966), starring Burt Reynolds, and the Civil War drama The Hills Run Red, starring American writer/actor Thomas Hunter. A couple of the more high profile films to come out of Dinocittà were The Taming of the Shrew by Franco Zeffirelli, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (1967); Barbarella, starring Jane Fonda (1968); Anzio, starring Robert Mitchum (1968); and Waterloo with Orson Welles and Christopher Plummer (1970).

Although production continued at Dinocittà through the 70s, it was arguably one costly 1966 production that marked the beginning of financial problems that would eventually lead to the demise of the facility. The 1966 film, The Bible: In the Beginning, was a big budget, elaborate production directed by John Huston with an ensemble cast that included Ava Gardner and Peter O’Toole. The plot covered the major events of the Bible in an abstract, artistic way but lacking in depth of storytelling. It was the highest grossing film of the year in 1966 but was not able to turn a profit. The property was seized by the government for nonpayment of taxes, in the 1970s. Shortly thereafter, De Laurentiis picked up and moved his film career and his family to the United States. He told the Italian press, "I left Rome because of intolerance towards politicians, trade unions, wrong laws, the impossibility of turning an artisanal cinema like the Italian one into an industrial and international cinema." 

Dinocittà was no longer in business but his production company was. Shortly after moving to Hollywood, he made his mark there with a string of hits that included Serpico (1973), Death Wish (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). The success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws inspired him to remake the 1933 King Kong but with a sentimentality that he felt Jaws lacked. One of his infamous quotes was "When Jaws dies, nobody cries. When Kong dies, we all cry." With that thought in mind, De Laurentiis got to work on his big budget remake. The 1976 film starring Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin turned out to be an international hit, even though critics did not completely embrace it.

Silvana Mangano in Dune
A trio of box office successes followed with Flash Gordon (1980) Ragtime (1981) and Conan the Barbarian (1982). Then in 1984, De Laurentiis released Dune which at the time was called “his most ambitious project yet.” Adapted from Frank Herbert's popular sci-fi novel by the same name, Dune, although not a great commercial success at the time, was responsible for the launch of numerous careers in the 1980s, including director David Lynch and cast members Kyle MacLachlan and Virginia Madsen. The period of the early 80s also marked the beginning of De Laurentiis’ collaboration with his daughter Raffaele, who followed in his footsteps becoming a producer in her own right.  

Apart from those over the top, action adventure and sci-fi films, De Laurentiis produced two exceptional dramas in the mid-80s. He teamed up again in 1986 with director David Lynch and actor Kyle MacLachlan for Blue Velvet. Isabella Rossellini accepted the lead role of tortured nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens after Helen Mirren reportedly turned it down due to the provocative nature of the character. Laura Dern and Dennis Hopper costar. Lynch created a surreal world inside this film, making it a cult classic.

One year later, De Laurentiis produced the lesser known Black Eyes (also called Dark Eyes), a 19th-century period film recounting the story of an Italian who falls in love with a Russian woman. A 1987 Italy/Russia coproduction starring Marcello Mastroianni and Silvana Mangano, the film was made two years before Mangano passed away. She was 57-years-old and still so beautiful. It is no longer in print or available on VOD. However, there are clips on YouTube worth checking out to see two legendary actors together in the twilight of their careers. It was Mangano’s last principle role. She and De Laurentiis separated in 1983 and divorced in 1988 but continued to work together until her untimely death at the age of 59. 

Watch the trailer for Black Eyes...

De Laurentiis married fellow producer Martha Schumacher in 1990 and the couple continued to produce films. Among them were Hannibal (2001) and Hannibal Rising (2007). He passed away on Nov. 10, 2010, at the age of 91 at his home in Beverly Hills, but his legacy lives on in so many ways.

His widow, Martha, is at the helm of the De Laurentiis Company, which has studios in Vermont, Australia and Morocco, and has provided production facilities for recent blockbusters like Aquaman, Iron Man 3 and Fox Television’s Sleepy Hollow. Dino’s nephew Aurelio De Laurentiis has his production company, Filmauro, and is a long-time collaborator of Carlo Verdone in particular. On this side of the Atlantic, Dino’s daughter Raffaella continues to work as a film producer.

De Laurentiis’ daughter Veronica has found her niche in activism, in particular, empowering women and helping them overcome abuse and get their lives back on track. In 2011, she started the non-profit Silvana Mangano Center “to create a network to help, educate and give a second chance to all victims of violence, abuse and stalking.” She also started her own web series that invites abused women to tell their stories. “Dillo a Veronica” (Tell Veronica) is broadcast on YouTube and Facebook. Visit for more information.

Giada De Laurentiis on location in Florence for Giada in Italy
In the spirit of his humble beginnings and the DDL Food Show, an Italian specialty foods store that Dino De Laurentiis started in New York and California in the early1980s, his granddaughter, celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis has carried on his legacy and passion for food. Since she made her debut on the Food Network in 2003, Giada has always been open about the influence her grandfather has had on her becoming a chef. 

During the first season of her Food Network series, Giada in Italy, she went right back to where it all started. In the episode titled, Dino’s Pasta Factory, Giada and her Aunt Raffaella (Aunt Raffy) visited Torre Annunziata, birthplace of Dino and where her great-grandparents once owned a pasta factory. Afterwards, they created some regional dishes inspired by the day. Click here to watch clips from the episode. 

During Season 3, Giada brought her mother, aunt and daughter to Capri, Italy, the family’s longtime vacation spot and a stone’s throw from Torre Annunziata, to celebrate her grandfather’s 100th birthday. The episode, titled, “Dino's 100th Birthday Party” is a moving, sentimental tribute to her grandfather’s legacy and her own Italian origins. Season 3 is still available on VOD. Recipes from all three seasons of Giada in Italy are available on the Food Network’s website.

Presenting my short film at the 2018 Cortodino Film Festival
Founded in 2010, the Cortodino Film Festival showcases short films from all over the world and carries on De Laurentiis' legacy. Held at a high school, the audience is made up of students during the day and then in the evening, the adults come together to discuss cinema with guest filmmakers. I presented my short documentary, Luigi Di Gianni: Soul of the South, at the 2019 edition and spoke with the festival’s director, Filippo Germano, about its significance. “The festival is dedicated to Dino De Laurentiis because he was born here in Torre Annunziata and it’s the hometown of his family. We also remember his brothers, producers Luigi and Aurelio De Laurentiis.” Germano went on to explain how the screenings are continuing Dino’s legacy for the next generation of filmmakers. “Dino De Laurentiis was known in his career as a producer for discovering new talents. So our festival is aimed at young filmmakers under the age of 35 for Italian cinema in order to pull up new, young talent for Italian cinema. Many of the films are presented by the filmmakers, creating a path of film literacy for the young people of our community to ensure that they can also be inspired by the world of cinema and find their own creative voice.”

Watch a clip from my interview with Filippo Germano...

Many films that De Laurentiis produced or coproduced are easily available online. Today, the grounds of Dinocittà are being enjoyed by a whole new generation. Cinecittà World, a theme park with spectacular recreations of famous movie sets, was built on the site of the old studios. Visit for more information. 

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